Last Friday afternoon, the Department of Music welcomed Bill Cunliffe, a jazz composer and pianist, to Studzinski Recital Hall to showcase his talents on the piano in honor of Director of Bowdoin Chorus Emeritus Anthony Antolini ’63.
Professor of Music Vin Shende said that the music department was unable to give Antolini a proper farewell until this year because he retired from the College shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of Antolini’s colleagues from Bowdoin and from other periods in his career were in attendance at Cunliffe’s performance.
Cunliffe, currently a professor of music at California State University, Fullerton, won a Grammy Award in 2010 for best instrumental arrangement with his “West Side Story Medley.” Cunliffe has also collaborated with Frank Sinatra—he said he played piano when Sinatra recorded “L.A. Is My Lady,” the jazz great’s final solo studio album.
Cunliffe took time in between his musical sets to make remarks about Bowdoin, and started the show with a message for the students in attendance.
“[Bowdoin] is a great place for you to try and fail because stakes are not too high,” he said.
Cunliffe began the program, billed as a “teatime concert,” with a mashup of Burt Baccarat songs. After the medley, Cunliffe discussed music consumerism, urging his audience to understand the context surrounding music, rather than consume it passively.
“The more you know about [music], the more you will enjoy it,” Cunliffe said.
He then began his second medley, this time of Duke Ellington songs. In this set, Cunliffe used his voice as a metronome and tapped his foot as he tackled Ellington’s music—typically played with a full band—with just a piano.
Following the Ellington medley, Cunliffe emphasized the importance of owning music. He implored audience members to buy DVDs and CDs as a mode of rejecting streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. This point raised spontaneous applause from some members of the audience.
Mia Cawley ’27, who attended the performance, said that her biggest takeaway from the concert was to be a well-informed consumer of music.
Shende offered a more positive perspective on the changes in how people consume music today. He observed that older forms of music consumption tended to contribute toward more rigid ideas about what a person’s music tastes and preferences meant about them.
“Identity is not as related to music as it once was,” Shende said. “I think there are both positives and negatives to that.”
For his finale, Cunliffe asked the audience what they would like to hear and was met with a multitude of suggestions. Cunliffe settled on combining Ellington classic “Take the ‘A’ Train” with “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. The mashup was put together on the spot and lasted almost 10 minutes.
“So much of jazz is being able to improvise on the spot and [know] all the changes,” Shende said. “[Cunliffe] clearly is a good player and is able to do that.”
Attendee Peter Jenks relished the ability to enjoy live performance.
“To see it live is so different,” Jenks said. “AI could never do that.”